If Can Tho is the gateway to the Mekong, then Chau Doc is its pulsating heart. With an estimated population of one hundred and twenty thousand it is a giddy blend of Cham, Vietnamese, Khmer and Chinese communities. Situated on the banks of the Bassac river it is a frontier town bordering Cambodia and a popular river crossing between Vietnam and Cambodia.
It took five hours by bus through villages, over canals and rivers, between rice paddy fields and fruit and vegetable plantations to get from Can Tho to Chau Doc. Had it not been for the buzz-bikes, tuk-tuks, and the local people our bus could have been traveling through Mozambique. The shacks, the dilapidated and weathered old buildings, the odd dog crossing the road (as well as the chicken) and the makeshift roadside trade and workshops looked much the same as driving from Maputo to Inhambane. Add to this the mind-numbingly slow pace and it’s “same same, but different”.
The man next to me attempted to teach me some Vietnamese:
Hello – Xin chao
Thank you – Cam du
Goodbye – Tam bier (I think)
Please – Vui long
Give me – Cho toi
I battled with the pronunciation but it was great fun nonetheless. The Vietnamese bus system is outstanding and used extensively by locals and tourists alike. Comfortable, air conditioned, safe and with an attentive “conductor”, you’ll never miss your stop nor be disappointed with your choice. The stops for food and toilet breaks are exciting. The stations are owned by the bus company and are clean, neat and well stocked with local food. Its cheap too. 80 000 VMD for a five-hour trip, or roughly $3.84. If you’re gonna travel round Vietnam this is a good way to do it. A word of warning though: if, like us, you find yourself at the bus station two hours before it’s scheduled to leave don’t frequent the nearest fast food joint that looks like something vaguely familiar, for you will be disappointed. The Vietnamese do local food so well and so efficiently that the concept of franchised fast food is anathema and is to be avoided.
Dinner, the first night in Chau Doc, is at a street shophouse. The menu is unintelligible but has photographs of each of the dishes. I cure the cold I’ve picked up by choosing a delicious shrimp and calamari soup with rice noodles, fresh coriander, chilli, garlic, bean sprouts, lettuce and freshly squeezed limes.
The following morning, speakers mounted on street poles and dotted throughout the town play host to blaring “news casts” and, I’m told, patriotic music. Courtesy of the government this takes place daily between the hours of 5am and 7am, 11am and 1pm and finally 4pm and 6pm. Easily ignored, except at 5am, the crackling and distorted noise from these speakers quickly becomes just another part of the experience. In a funny way, it’s kinda cute.
There’s a Khmer temple outside of town, a memorial to the Victims of the Khmer Rouge genocide and one the guidebooks suggest seeing. But the town of Chau Doc is such an attractive, energetic, colorful and vibrant place that it’s far better to walk around and get lost, which is what we chose to do, cameras in hand.
To say that Chau Doc’s central market is lively and bustling is an understatement. It’s a great ball of energy that flows from market stall to market stall. Driving this ball of energy are the women who run the stalls. They natter and chatter and bargain and barter, all the while cooking or chopping or cutting or packaging whatever it is they choose to sell.
The market is a riot of colour, from the produce to the umbrellas shading the stalls and the clothes the women wear. It’s a painter’s palette brought to life. The flower stalls are bright and inviting. Fruit stalls heave under carefully arranged mounds of exotic fruit – pink dragon fruit with green tipped plumes, brash red rose apples, hairy red and brown rantambams, deliciously yellow papaya and mangos and fat round oranges. Mouthwatering.
The meat section was interesting too. Slabs of pork and beef in every variety of cut from the head right through to, and including, the tail. Plucked chicken, their heads and feet still attached, arranged in static poses, their claws pointing skywards. Similarly, plucked duck are posed with their heads tucked coyly under one plucked wing. I don’t notice any flies on the meat and there’s no offensive smell.
I’m drawn to the fish section where fish and shrimp and fresh water shell fish are kept in aerated steel containers and the fish you choose to buy is butchered on the spot. Fresh water prawns so big you couldn’t grab them with one hand scrabble for space in a container next to one filled with catfish with a leopard-type pattern on their skin. Next to these, pink bream gulp water and thrash as they fight to survive and to the side of this collection of bream is a fish tank layered with squirming eels. But the find of the day is the presentation of cooked frogs, deathly pink and lying on their backs showing off their stout little legs to buyers.
This market is a photographer’s delight and clean.There are noodles, spices, garlic, chilli, okra, tomato, potato, lettuce, bean sprouts and, around the corner, plastic toys for children. Can’t see myself ever going to a mall again to buy food after this experience.
Everything that’s for sale is arranged and presented on tables that are about knee height. There’s space enough on the table for all that’s for sale as well as the woman who sells it. They squat or sit cross-legged on their tables and conduct business or natter to each other, and they’re delighted if you ask to take their photograph.
Small children accompany their mothers to the market, whether their mothers are buying or selling. It’s a beautiful experience and elevates Chau Doc to must-visit status for me.
Photographing the market takes up much of the day and there’s scant time to shoot the central Buddhist temple because of a late afternoon downpour. But the dinner of sweet and sour beef and rice at another shophouse ends off an outstanding day of delighting the senses.